Are You Prepared For The Robot Economy ? part 2

Are you prepared for the robot economy ? part 2

How will the robot economy affect employment ?

In the first part of this article I have described how the robot economy is already ubiquitously present in our world. The article reviewed a book recently published by Nesta, the UK agency for innovation, that assembles a series of essays discussing the impact of automation in society, through varied points of view.

One of the question addressed repeatedly in the book is the impact of robots in employment. Futurist enthusiasts very excited about a future surrounded by automated tasks done by robots, tend to minimize this important argument that should be tackled with caution. Their argument is that just as the industrial revolution made farmers and peasants were made redundant by the invention of the tractor to find afterwards new jobs in factories, something similar will occur and new new jobs will arise. But even though the haunting fear of job loss is an old prophecy that never fulfills itself, it is hard to be blind to the fact that obviously we will have job losses. And for now, we certainly have to deal with a society with falling wages for the middle worker, as the essay written by Frederick Guy points out, by explaining how technology has risen the income of CEOs but failed to do the same for the average worker.

How to address the problem of having a large number of worker employed in services, made redundant because of automation ? Will such a situation just confirm the dreadful robot hypothesis ?

Some point out how one can look at the question through a positive point of view reminding oneself that technology is not a destiny but a choice. The effects of technology in society totally depend on human choices about politics, business, organization and social norms. One should as well never forget that technology should help the world to find better solutions that benefit the whole of humankind. Therein one needs to look for the best regulamentations and solutions for the implementation of technology.

One of the most interesting articles in the book is the one of Carlota Perez, an widely known scholar on innovation that explains how historically the development and implementation of technology trigger the emergence of a novel techno-economic paradigm in society. Authors Noah Smith and Frances Coppola, on the other hand both underline the importance of political decisions in the curbing of the impact of automation. Georgina Voss, on the other hand, tell us in her essay how the position of men and women in a future society structured around automation and robots, will depend on political, social and technological decisions.

As the editor of the book concludes:

“ technology may change the solution space in which we operate, but it is humans who make the ultimate decisions.”

Looking at robots through a positive mind frame

The ethos of the book opts to present an optimistic view on the subject describing suggestions of policies that can bring out the best for all, in a world organized through robots, particularly the ones that can do repetitive, boring tasks, which would free more people to engage in creative, enjoyable activities. Author Edward Skidelsky writes how the activities remaining will transform work into a more creative and rewarding activity. Some of the authors point out that activities such as social care and creative industries, are unlikely to ever happen through the hands of robots. But it is a fact that automation will leave a large sector of the population poorer and with less expectations.

The jobs left for humans to do in a “robot age” are those that require skills that are hard for robots to develop, such as creativity, empathy and social skills. Here, the books asks interesting questions:

  • How do we create high-skilled, fulfilling social care jobs, giving the public funding of much of the social care sector and constrains on public finances?
  •  Will the difficulty of making money from creative content in an age of free online copying make it hard for people to find work in the creative industries ?”

Obviously, the answer for these questions rely on redesigning the education system, to teach children on how to work creatively with technology, and how to have non-cognitive skills, like determination or resilience. As the book advices, government policy should look for drafting industrial strategies for sectors likely to create jobs in an era ruled by automation. These will be the creative industries, and social and personal care which still lack, in the UK, a clear industrial strategy.

Looking at the bright side of the picture of an abundant society where robots do the most of the “boring” work, implies to look at who is going to benefit from the work done by robots.  The essays in the book described various possible scenarios on how to distribute the  profits of a “robot” revolution in a fairer way to all,  as robots doing the “work” disrupt the logics of human meritocracy and “hard” work. One author suggests a “universal basic income”, but as the editor mentions, that possibility utopian for the times being, as currently people still perceive their own (and others) intrinsic value strongly linking it to “hard” work.

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The downside picture

A pint of pessimism understanding a world shaped by robots is also worthwhile a “futuristic look”, now that we have enough historical perspective to understand that not all innovations are necessarily good for all.  One has to clearly understand where automation will be detrimental for society ( the examples given are high-frequency trading algorithms and fixed odd betting terminals) and even though the task is hard, governments need to judge whether an innovation is detrimental and therefore should be banned.

If we are to welcome a robot economy with optimism we should do so, with having in mind the improvement of humanity as a whole, and the common good.

The whole book can be read and download here: Our work here is done. Visions of a robot economy.